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Great Solutions and Happy Clients

By Jim Calloway

What does a law firm produce? “Legal services” is a completely accurate, fact-based answer. It also doesn’t communicate very much information. In fact, it is somewhat like asking a meteorologist why it is so hot today and getting back the answer “because the temperature is high.” Well, yes, but…

So, should law firms produce? Let me suggest that a law firm today should be in the business of producing great solutions and happy clients.
 
Most new clients don’t really want legal services. They need legal services. What they want is often a resolution of a problem. Sometimes they want to avoid a problem in the future. Sometimes they want advice and paperwork relating to something they are planning. However, the majority of legal work is the result of someone having a problem and hiring a lawyer to find, create or negotiate a solution to that problem.
 
Clients may sometimes be frustrated by the time and money involved in seeking, identifying and implementing the solution, but some clients don’t wish to understand the steps and strategies along that path, except to the extent that they cost the client money.

In fact, a significant difference between lawyers in larger firms representing corporate clients and those lawyers in solo and small firm practice primarily representing individuals is that the corporate client has in-house counsel who speaks the language of lawyers and approaches legal issues from that perspective. Individual clients almost always show up at the law firm with a problem that needs to be solved and have difficulty seeing the problem from any perspective other than their own.

The more you appreciate that the client wants a solution to their problem rather than legal services, the better you can design your legal services delivery processes to incorporate communication with clients focusing on how you are reaching their solution and the better you can design your marketing efforts to attract new clients.

For example, when you win that important contested argument at the motion docket, a text message or a phone call from the courthouse to the assistant general counsel is likely important. This can be brief because the assistant general counsel understands the situation, but even though you may have worked personally with an individual client preparing for the motion hearing and believe the client understands the issue well, the individual client still needs a reminder of the impact of this ruling as a critical part of the solution to their overall problem. (e.g., “Now the plaintiff can no longer…”)

Which brings us to my view of the second “thing” a law firm should produce – happy clients.

Producing happy former clients is better for you personally. The practice of law is increasingly competitive. Your number one goal for business development should be producing happy and satisfied clients who will sing the praises of your law firm, come back to you when future services (aka solutions) are needed and refer other potential clients to your firm.
 
This is also positive for your clients. A well-informed client will have less stress, leading to more positive interactions with the law firm. A confident client will more easily accept your advice and also be more likely to ask for clarification when needed. A satisfied client will promptly pay invoices and is obviously not going to file a grievance against you.
 
Lawyers spend a lot of time communicating. We are somewhat unique in that our clients understand our value based largely on our communications and interactions with them. Certainly they pay attention to results, but a good result cannot overcome weeks of sporadically returning phone calls or ignoring client emails as far as the client’s impression of you as a lawyer.

Clients often cannot accurately judge the quality of your legal work, so they judge your effectiveness based on your communications with them, returning calls and meeting deadlines.
 
THE CLIENT EXPERIENCE

The forward-thinking law firm should focus on improving the client experience. Sure, it’s the digital age, but you are missing an excellent opportunity if the new client who has engaged the firm does not leave with some brochures and handouts to read. Most clients will only glance at a traditional law firm brochure with honors, awards, photos of lawyers and biographical information. Instead, give them reading material about their specific matter. Often, this will reinforce information that was provided to them orally in the consultation. This is a good thing. Repetition helps us remember and people learn differently. Some will not read your handouts. Some will read them many times and retain more than they did from the consultation, particularly if it was their first time in a lawyer’s office.

Staff should be reminded frequently that clients are the ones who provide the funds to pay their salary. Every visitor to the law office should receive a warm greeting. Many law firms now offer clients a choice of a beverage. Counsel your staff that we sometimes deal with people at one of the lowest or most anxious moments in their lives. You should regularly discuss what to do if a lawyer is late to an appointment or a client appears particularly angry or upset. (Sadly, today that discussion must also cover their personal safety and security.)

A law firm should have forms and templates for letters or emails that can be used for client communication as a matter proceeds, with the attorney time involved in developing the template, but not in executing the communication.

ESTABLISHING COMMUNICATION CHANNELS

Once there was a day when communication channels were office consultations, telephone calls and the U.S. mail. Today there are numerous digital methods of communication. Your client may have first learned about your law firm via the law firm’s Facebook page, that doesn’t mean that you view Facebook instant messages as a secure and appropriate method of communication. If you do not discuss this, the client will not know this. You cannot be effective if you have to check the digital equivalent of seven or eight “inboxes” every day for client communications. Discuss this with your client.

However, be flexible. Text messages are a very popular form of communication but there are drawbacks. To name one, without advance preparation it is sometimes time-consuming to get text messages saved in the digital client file where records of all significant client communications should be retained. On the other hand, I have seen situations supporting the conclusion that one might have an ethical obligation to use text messages to communicate with a particular client. If the client doesn’t have a computer or internet access and has an unstable living situation where someone might either open or discard their mail, text messages may be the best option.

Email is not secure. We are all using it, but it is not secure. If you are emailing with a client make certain that the client has given informed consent to use email and understands there may be some communications that should not be emailed.

We still believe most law firms will use client portals for document sharing and secure messaging. Many practice management tools now include a client portal. This is a best practice today.

RETURNING PHONE CALLS AND SETTING EXPECTATIONS

It is almost a cliché to repeat that failure to return phone calls is the number one complaint of unhappy law firm clients. Today, as noted above, there are many other communication channels.

Clients sometimes have to return missed calls and voicemails themselves, but their experience with returning calls in a social setting may give them unrealistic expectations about how quickly phone calls can and should be returned. A lawyer should have a discussion with every new client about communication channels and about how challenging it can be for lawyers to return their phone calls on occasion. They may have no idea that lawyers are required to turn off their mobile phones in courtrooms, for example. Let them know that this may be a challenge for you, but also let them know about your office policy for returning phone calls. Some lawyers will be ambitious and set returning the call on the same day as a goal. A more realistic goal may be within 48 hours for non-emergency calls. Setting appropriate expectations will go a long way toward resolving client frustration when you are unavailable.

You and your client will have a better relationship if you spend some time going through some hypotheticals. For example, if they just want to schedule an appointment or confirm the court date they may have forgotten, they should know that staff can do that if the lawyer is unavailable. They need to understand it is important to leave messages that let you know why they are calling. Talk about emergency situations. I often told my family law clients that the courthouses were closed on the weekends and some types of emergency calls might be better directed to law enforcement.

Your staff also needs to be informed that, if something unexpected happens, they can return phone calls on your behalf to see what assistance they can provide.

THE COMMUNICATION PROCESS

The basics of the communication process is the sender has an idea, encodes that idea into a message, the message travels over a channel and then the receiver decodes and interprets the message.

There are many barriers to communication. With our mobile devices, we live in distracting times. It is certainly appropriate to ask your client to mute their mobile phone and not use it during the consultation with you, but then you also have to live with that rule.

You want to avoid interruptions when meeting with a client, particularly with an initial interview with a new client, but that’s really true for any office consultation with a client. If you know you will need to be briefly interrupted to sign a pleading or check, tell the client when the consultation starts that you’re going to have to take a brief break for a minor emergency. That will make the interruption more acceptable.

You should examine your physical setup to minimize distractions. You may not notice familiar background noises that will distract a client.

Receiver stress is another one of those barriers and many people hire a lawyer to deal with a stressful situation. Maintain eye contact. Pay attention when a client seems distracted or not to be paying attention. You can often reengage them by asking a simple question, perhaps even one unrelated to the matter at hand. We have heard a lot of discussion about doctor’s “bedside manner.” You want to make certain that your clients perceive you as the empathetic, caring and competent professional that you are.

BE CONVENIENT

Some potential clients cannot easily take time off work during business hours or lose pay when they do. Even a small business owner might appreciate not leaving his or her business during prime business hours. In this more competitive environment, some consumer-oriented firms may offer regular evening hours of operation.

 “Open Thursday evenings” could be both a marketing strategy and a client service strategy. It would likely not be too hard to implement, as law firm staff might easily trade working a Thursday evening for taking Friday afternoon off or not being charged leave for a personal appointment.

Producing great solutions for clients and happy, satisfied clients is a formula for success for every law firm, no matter what the size, and for every lawyer. This also results in happier lawyers.

Mr. Calloway is OBA Management Assistance Program Director.  Need a quick answer to a tech problem or help solving a management dilemma?  Contact him at 405-416-7008, 1-800-522-8065 or jimC(at)OKbar.org.  It's a free member benefit!
  

Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal -- September 9, 2017 -- Vol. 88, No. 24